On Saturday night at BC Place, fifth place Vancouver Whitecaps host sixth place Portland Timbers in a game that could have a significant impact on the Western Conference playoff race. To prepare for this particular Cascadian encounter we reached out to the good folks at 86 Forever to help us figure out exactly how Vancouver enters this game. Jon Szekeres was kind enough to provide some answers ahead of this crucial fixture:
It was a hard match to watch, but not a totally unexpected result. The Whitecaps were missing the best defensive player on the team in midfielder Matias Laba because of yellow card accumulation, so you knew there were going to be some miscommunications there. I think the best word to describe it was frustrating. The 'Caps always seem to struggle against the Galaxy, and despite boasting some of the best young talent in MLS, the 'Caps are failing to get goals on a consistent basis. It's a damn shame too, because this was one of the most exciting clubs in MLS early in the season, with a high octane attack. As you've mentioned, a little sting was taken away by the Timbers loss, but the 'Caps can't count on other teams to help them into the post-season. Veteran defender Andy O'Brien had a rough match, and you would hope he'll be able to bounce back.
2. In previous seasons the Whitecaps have started strongly only to fade late in the year. Does the current two wins in twelve qualify in that tradition?
They've been getting draws, so it hasn't been a total swan dive. That being said, it's perilously close to turning into that storyline yet again. If you compared this club to the club of a few months ago, I would argue they've regressed. I think the Portland match is a must-win for the 'Caps, if only to try and keep some pressure of their shoulders. Should the Timbers win, the Whitecaps will have blown a huge opportunity to put a little more distance between themselves and sixth place. If they fail to deliver, the comparisons to the last few seasons will only grow, and that's just not a distraction this club needs right now.
3. The last meeting between these teams saw some controversial penalties, a breakout game from Erik Hurtado and a spirited but ultimately pointless (literally) comeback from Portland. Do you expect a similarly interesting and high scoring game or is so much on the line that a conservative approach will be more pragmatic?
I'll tell you, no player on the Whitecaps frustrates me more than Erik Hurtado. The kid has such talent, and yet he's done his best Sue Storm impersonation ever since his goal streak ended. So on that point, I haven't a clue if he'll be able to equal his effort from the last outing. Theoretically, it could be a high scoring match if the Whitecaps skill players can gel with new teammate Mauro Rosales, who managed to get a few minutes in during that loss to the Galaxy for his first appearance as a Whitecap. However, the recent trend of this club has been to sputter offensively, so I'm going to say low-scoring. The Whitecaps are a better team when they're setting the pace and leading the attack, so I would hope they don't just sit back on their heels and try to grind out a single point. Given the Whitecaps have the second most draws in MLS, that might be exactly what happens.
David Ousted, Steven Beitashour, Andy O'Brien, Matt Waston, Jordan Harvey, Matias Laba, Russell Teibert, Mauro Rosales, Pedro Morales, Kekuta Manneh, Darren Mattocks
My answers to Jon's questions:
1. So, what went wrong against the Sounders?
Oof, well, everything? Actually that's not exactly true, as the Timbers' attack was pretty strong, especially in the first half. That sounds strange given both Portland goals came in the second half but before the game got out of hand, Diego Valeri orchestrated several nice sequences. The most specific answer is that the defense was an individual and collective disaster. From Michael Harrington to Liam Ridgewell to even the usually steady Diego Chara, the Timbers were repeatedly beaten by Sounders attackers. Seattle is just too good to make those kinds of mistakes against and Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins in particular, punished Portland. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln...
2. Maximiliano Urruti is having a breakout year with 8 goals on the season so far. How is he finding success on the pitch?
Urruti is a really hardworking forward, and that's how he earns his minutes. He pesters defenders with high pressure and is constantly moving, being a nuisance. Interestingly, though, that's not really where a lot of his goals come from. After Diego Valeri, who's leading the league with four goals from outside the box, Urruti is second in MLS with three goals from outside the 18. He combines really well with Valeri and Gaston Fernandez and is very adept at placing his shots just out of reach of goalkeepers (that sounds stupid but he really does place the ball with his shots). He's a very talented young player when he puts it all together. The question for Saturday is whether or not Urruti will even start. With Fanendo Adi scoring his third brace of the season on Sunday against the Sounders, he could slip back into the XI against Vancouver this weekend. Either way, expect Urruti to get at least some playing time and to be problematic for the Whitecaps' center backs.
3. Whats changed for this club from last year, where they were atop the Western Conference standings with 57 points?
Really the biggest difference has been the inconsistency and downright poor play at the back. That has come from injuries and regression and really wasn't addressed until the Ridgewell signing this summer. Norberto Paparatto has been better than the disaster he was early in the season but even still, the defense allows multiple goals per game. Portland's attacking players are perhaps even better than last year with Valeri leading the way, yet Darlington Nagbe has not yet scored in the league this year and Rodney Wallace missed half the year after an ACL injury last October. In short, a bunch of career years in 2013 (Nagbe, Wallace, Will Johnson, Ryan Johnson, Donovan Ricketts) have not been equalled and that means the Timbers are just a pretty good team on the edge of the playoffs.
Donovan Ricketts; Michael Harrington, Liam Ridgewell, Pa Kah, Alvas Powell; Will Johnson, Diego Chara; Rodney Wallace, Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe; Fanendo Adi